Mary McLeod Bethune
Editor’s note: This month, redefinED is revisiting the best examples of our Voucher Left series, which focuses on the center-left roots of school choice. Today’s post from June 2016 tells the story of civil rights activist and school choice pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune, who started a private, faith-based school for African-American girls in 1904 that became known as Bethune-Cookman University.
How fitting: The choiciest of school choice states may soon be represented in the U.S. Capitol by the statue of a school choice pioneer.
A state panel nominated three legendary Floridians for the National Statuary Hall last week, but the only unanimous choice was Mary McLeod Bethune. The civil rights activist and adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt is best known for founding the private, faith-based school that became Bethune-Cookman University.
Assuming the Florida Legislature gives the Bethune statue a thumbs up too, more people, including millions of tourists who visit the hall each year, may get to hear her remarkable story. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get a better sense of the threads that tie the fight to educational freedom in Bethune’s era to our own.
With $1.50 to her name, Bethune opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904. There were public schools for black students in early 1900s Florida, but they were far inferior to white schools.
Bethune’s vision for something better was shaped by her own educational experience.
She attended three private, faith-based schools as a student. She taught at three private, faith-based schools before building her own. In every case, support for those schools, financial and otherwise, came from private contributions, religious institutions – and the communities they served. Backers were motivated by the noble goal of expanding educational opportunity. Black parents ached for it. That’s why, in the early days of her school, Bethune rode around Daytona on a second-hand bicycle, knocking on doors to solicit donations. That’s why her students mashed sweet potatoes for fund-raiser pies, while Bethune rolled up the crust.
Failure was not an option, because failure would have meant no options.
Goodness knows, I’m no expert on Mary McLeod Bethune. But given what I do know, I think she’d be amazed at the freedom that today’s choice options offer to educators. More and more teachers, especially in choice-friendly states like Florida, are now able to work in or create schools that synch with their vision and values – and get state-supported funding to do it.
Bethune was forever hunting dollars to keep her school afloat, and it wore her down. In 1902, she asked Booker T. Washington for money. In 1915, she asked philanthropist and civil rights advocate Julius Rosenwald for money. In 1920, she made a pitch on the letters page of the New York Times. (All of this can be found in “Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World,” a nice collection of Bethune’s writing.)
In 1941, Bethune even asked FDR. “I need not tell you what it has meant in Florida to try to build up a practical and cultural institution for my people,” she wrote to the president. “It has taken a wisdom and tact and patience and endurance that I cannot describe in words.”
“We are now in desperate need of funds,” she continued. “My nights are sleepless with this load upon my heart and mind.”
I can’t help but wonder what a superhero like Bethune could have done, had Florida had vouchers and tax credit scholarships a century ago. I don’t mean to dismiss the inequity in funding for choice programs – it’s real, and it deserves more attention – but inequity is relative. The funding streams available for low-income students today would have allowed Bethune to park the bike, forget the pie crust and focus on her core mission.
It would also have allowed her to rally more to the cause.
Bethune, who initially hoped to be a missionary, understood how much education and faith are intertwined for so many parents, and that it doesn’t make sense to pit public against private, or one school against another.
In 1932, she weighed in on a feud between state teacher colleges with an essay that foreshadows the all-hands-on-deck views of many of today’s choice supporters. She referenced the massive number of truant African American students and the “pitiful handful” that graduate from high school. “Unfriendly rivalry was never more needless, never more inexpedient among the schools of Florida than just now,” Bethune wrote.
The same could be said for K-12 education today.
Somehow, though, Bethune managed to end her essay on an up note, with an appeal to common ground:
Florida faces a new day in education. Grim as the picture appears today, it is not nearly so bad as it was just a few years hence, and the aspect is rapidly changing for the better; a veritable miracle is transpiring before the eye. The day for which many warriors now aging in the service have longed, the day for which they have prayed and sweat drops of blood – that new day of the hoped-for better things is approaching. With the scent of victory in the nostril, may every agency redouble its zeal; with jealousies forgotten, with the spirit of competition thrust aside, may every organization and individual unite under the banner of One Common Cause, the grim battle against ignorance and vice, and carry the issue to a glorious victory.
New education laws: More than 100 new state laws go into effect Sunday, including several related to education. H.B. 7055 will allow public school students who are bullied or harassed to be eligible for state scholarships to go to private schools. The Hope Scholarship will be funded by motorists who agree to contribute the sales taxes they would normal pay for vehicle transactions to the scholarships. The bill also boosts funds for Gardiner scholarships for students with disabilities. Other new laws set a back-to-school sales tax holiday in August, and authorize the placement of a statue of famed black educator Mary McLeod Bethune into the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. News Service of Florida.
Budget problems: Budgets analysts for the Hillsborough County School District now project a $70 million gap between revenues and expenses for the 2019-2020 school year. The district will get $41 million extra from the state, but about $36 million of that goes for growth and state mandates. The extra $5 million is swallowed by higher expenses for school security, insurance and employee raises. Tampa Bay Times. Pasco County school officials are projecting a $1 million deficit in next year’s budget, but are reluctant to ask voters for additional revenue. “It sounds great,” says Superintendent Kurt Browning about the $28 million a year a 1-mill property tax hike could raise. “But when people get accustomed to having that additional money in their paychecks, and the voters don’t approve it again, that just stops. I am very hesitant.” Gradebook.
Tax hike votes: Voters in Sarasota and Manatee counties approve an additional 1 mill on property taxes for schools, by a wide margin in Sarasota and a narrow one in Manatee. In Sarasota, the extra $55 million in each of the next four years will help pay for 30 extra minutes of classtime a day, higher teacher salaries and more art teachers and behavioral specialists. In Manatee, the extra $33 million a year for the next four years will be used to lengthen the school day by 30 minutes, pay teachers and other employees more, expand STEM and career programs and support charter schools. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Martin County School Board members are considering asking voters to approve a hike in property taxes to pay for teacher bonuses and construction projects. If approved, the measure could raise about $11.2 million a year for four years. TCPalm.
School security, finances: Putting a resource officer in every Pinellas County school by July 1 will cost $23.6 million, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri tells the county commission. The state’s contribution is $6.1 million, and the sheriff’s office and municipal police departments’ contribution is $1.6 million, leaving the school district to find $12.4 million to put 201 school resource officers in the 139 district schools and 18 charter schools. And, Gualtieri notes, there would be an additional $11.2 million needed for upfront costs such as cars, weapons, uniforms and computers. Neighboring Hillsborough County school officials say the district will get an additional $41 million from the state, but still is projecting a $16 million deficit because of new state requirements on school security, an expected 3,000 extra students and other expenses. Tampa Bay Times. Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin talks about the district’s finances, and the new education and school safety bills. WMNF. The head of one of Florida’s largest charter school networks is asking the 13 districts where it has schools to provide resource officers on every campus by April 1. Gradebook. The Gulf Breeze City Council votes to fund the placement of part-time officers in all the city’s elementary schools through the end of the school year. WEAR.
March For Our Lives: More than 1 million people are expected to attend March For Our Lives rallies Saturday in Washington, D.C., and at least 800 other sites around the world, according to the students who have organized the rallies in response to the school shootings in Parkland on Feb. 14 that killed 17. They are calling for stricter gun regulations. “It just shows that the youth are tired of being the generation where we’re locked in closets and waiting for police to come in case of a shooter,” says Alex Wind, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Associated Press.
Board member rips walkout: Marion County School Board member Nancy Stacy says Superintendent Heidi Maier’s plan to allow student walkouts on campuses April 20 is “pure liberal fascism at its finest.” Stacy says Maier is being used by the “political idiots of the left.” In a series of emails to the superintendent, Stacy also wrote that: “We all know the students didn’t arrange a thing here or Tallahassee or nationwide. This is another example of why we need (school) vouchers for parents to escape this abusive manipulation of their children’s minds.” Ocala Star-Banner.
Cruz’s brother arrested: The brother of accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is arrested after deputies say he trespassed onto the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus. Zachary Cruz, 18, had been warned to stay away from the school. He said he went to the school to “reflect on the shooting and to soak it in …” Sun-Sentinel. Miami Herald. Palm Beach Post. Associated Press.
School tax votes today: Voters in Sarasota and Manatee counties go to the polls today to vote on increasing property taxes by 1 mill for schools. A yes vote would increase revenue for schools in Sarasota County by about $55 million a year, and by about $33 million a year in Manatee. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Bradenton Herald.
Education bill: The Senate Education Committee unanimously approves a major rewrite of the House’s omnibus education bill, H.B. 7055. The Senate version would put armed law enforcement officers at every school in the state, make state scholarships available to bullied students with substantiated claims, boost oversight of private school choice programs, require charter schools to return facilities to districts if they close, and create a comprehensive mental health program for schools, among other things. It also removes the provision that would decertify teachers unions if membership falls below half of the members represented. The revised bill now moves on to the Senate Appropriations Committee. redefinED. Associated Press. Gradebook. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. News Service of Florida.
Parkland and politics: The Florida House overwhelmingly rejects a proposal to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as about 100 students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School look on. The vote was 71-36 against H.B. 219, Students say the shootings have changed them, and vow to continue fighting for school safety. Miami Herald. Sun-Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Politico Florida. Tallahassee Democrat. After meetings with superintendents and law enforcement officials, Gov. Rick Scott says he will have a plan of action in response to the shootings in Parkland to take to legislators by Friday. “We have two weeks left in session at that point, and my goal is to get something accomplished,” says Scott. Politico Florida. WKMG. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A Senate hearing on a bill that would allow designated people to carry concealed weapons at schools is postponed Tuesday. Miami Herald. President Donald Trump calls on the Justice Department to ban all devices like bump stocks, an attachment that can turn a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic one. Associated Press. New York Times. The Broward County Charter Review Commission says it will consider giving voters the chance to decide what guns should be permitted in the county. Sun-Sentinel. Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner wants the board to officially support a ban on assault weapons. Gradebook. Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna is criticized by the chairman of the county’s Republican Party for giving excused absences to students who wanted to join a rally at the Capitol. Tallahassee Democrat.